Bike Friday virtually created the travel bike niche. Sure, there were other foldable bicycles before Alan Scholz designed his first small-wheel machine to fit in a suitcase in the early 1990s. But none rode as much like a conventional bike.
I have owned Bike Friday Pocket Rockets for more than 10 years. I’ve used them for camps, tours, brevets, centuries and training while traveling. They ride and handle as well as my best bikes.
Bike Friday also offers tandems. The original model — cleverly named Bike Two’sDay — fit neatly in two suitcases, one for the captain to check and one for the stoker. Now, the company offers no fewer than 48 tandem models, including triplets, for everything from racing to touring to family recreation.
My wife, Deb, and I rode one of Bike Friday’s high-end models, the TiLite XL Road Tandem Traveler, equipped with Dura-Ace 9-speed components. We totaled 25 hours during 10 rides, including a 5:30 century at the Tour of the Valley in Grand Junction, CO.
This tandem is seriously light. Our test bike didn’t crack 30 pounds even with pedals. It’s light because the cro-moly steel front and rear are joined by titanium connector tubes. Seat masts are Ti, too.
Our first impression of the bike was — flexy! Thanks to the lightness and springiness of titanium, the TiLite is less rigid than standard tandems. It wasn’t disturbing, but it took us a few rides to adjust. Once we did, we liked the way it held the road in rough corners, almost like a suspension bike. The give in the frame also meant stoker comfort on rough roads even though the bike didn’t have a beam or suspension seatpost. Deb experienced no saddle discomfort even during long rides on rough chip ‘n’ seal roads.
Standing — always a good test of tandem flex — wasn’t a problem, although it required a bit more captain/stoker coordination and smoothness than on a stiffer bike.
Bike Friday tandems or singles are great for travel. Because they fit in a suitcase, you don’t get charged the exorbitant airline bike fee (as much as $75 each way). A packable tandem means that you can take it on a vacation with a minimum of fuss. The company even offers two tandems that convert to a single bike for those days when one member of the team doesn’t want to ride.
On the first try, the TiLite took about an hour to assemble. Based on experience with the Pocket Rocket, I could have reduced that time by half with some practice. Tearing it down for re-packing took 45 minutes. But again, practice would get you ready for the airport in 30 minutes or less. The tandem fits easily in two standard Samsonite suitcases. Bike Friday says a skilled packer can actually fit it into one.
Bike Friday tandems are also easier to transport when assembled because their 20-inch wheels help them squeeze into vehicles that can’t accept a standard 700C-wheel tandem. For example, with the front wheel removed, our test bike fit diagonally in the rear of our ’95 Jeep Laredo and 2002 Toyota Highlander. With the seats folded down, we rolled the bike in, catty-corner, on the rear wheel, then turned the handlebar to let the tailgate close. We appreciated being able to haul the bike in the safety of the car and avoid the labor of hoisting it onto a roof rack.
Fearing the Gearing
Stock gearing on the TiLite is, well, aggressive. Chainrings are 62/48 teeth with an 11-23-tooth cassette. Adjusting for the small wheels, these sprockets produce approximately the same gearing as 53/39 chainrings mated with the same cassette on a 700C bike.
We knew we couldn’t climb our local hills — like the 6-mile grind with grades to 10% to Black Canyon National Park — on that gearing. So Bike Friday installed a Shimano Deore LX rear derailleur and an 11-32 cassette. The resulting low gear of 30 inches allowed us to spin up steep climbs.
One drawback to 20-inch wheels is the enormous chainring needed to get a decent high gear. The 62×11-tooth combo yields 113 inches, only slightly larger than a 53×13 on a standard bike. As a result, we spun out on fast descents. Because the extra weight of a tandem means extremely rapid downhilling, another 15 gear inches would have been useful.
The bike came with standard Dura-Ace rim brakes. I was concerned that hard braking on long, curvy descents would overheat the rims, raise the pressure in the tubes to dangerous levels and potentially cause a blowout. But the brakes worked fine, even on the switchbacked descent of the Colorado National Monument during the Tour of the Valley.
Bike Friday’s Hanz Scholz reports that he gets excellent results using a rear wheel with a drag brake while descending long, steep grades with a load. With this option, a cable is attached to a disk brake. Drag is adjusted with a standard bar-end shift lever to prevent the tandem from rolling too fast.
The small wheels on Bike Fridays mean accelerated tire wear because tires go around more often for a given speed. And tandem tires wear fast in general because of the greater weight they bear. Even so, our tandem’s excellent IRC Roadlite EX 1 1/8-inch tires showed minimal wear after 450 miles.
We really enjoyed riding this tandem. It was fast, light, maneuverable and comfortable for both driver and stoker. Portability was a big bonus, too. Finally there was the Wow! Factor. Other cyclists wanted to talk about the bike. Motorists pointed and waved. It’s hard to ride incognito on any version of a Bike Friday!
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.